The Senate yesterday approved by a 96 to 3 vote a resolution supporting President Bush's deployment of U.S. military forces to the Persian Gulf, but the senators left open the question of their continued backing if he sends U.S troops into battle without provocation.

Along with the House resolution that was passed late Monday by a 380 to 29 vote, the Senate measure gave the president the overwhelming political support he wanted for his actions in responding to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

But Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.) yesterday warned Bush that approval of the congressional resolutions does not mean "that when we leave town, you can then proceed to carry on a war." However, nothing in the resolution explicitly approved or disapproved the president taking such a step.

Despite this, Adams and other Hill legislators in recent days have repeatedly said they want to steer clear of anything resembling the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution, which opened the door to the U.S. military escalation that became the Vietnam War.

The House and Senate resolutions do not make a judgment on the longstanding dispute between the White House and Capitol Hill over the president's power, as commander-in-chief, to commit U.S. forces initially to battle without waiting for Congress to exercise its responsibility to declare war.

Instead, the measure contains ambiguous language, approved by the White House, that can be interpreted in different ways by different members.

The Senate resolution, for example, voices support for "continued action by the president" but ties it to decisions of the U.N. Security Council and to "U.S. constitutional and statutory processes," a phrase meant to be broad enough to satisfy both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"It does not authorize acts of war," Adams said. "It does not authorize imminent hostilities. It authorizes protection of our troops. It authorizes protection of Saudi Arabia."

Citing another section of the Senate resolution which authorizes the president to "protect American lives and vital interests in the region," Adams said the White House should not try to interpret that language "as meaning we can launch a full-scale attack without coming back and talking to the Congress, and without the nation being braced and ready and prepared to go ahead."

The votes on the separate resolutions were accompanied by little public debate.

Many senators and representatives, while concerned about possible future military steps by the United States in the confrontation, declined to voice concerns in floor debates in order to avoid giving Iraqi President Saddam Hussein an impression there was political disunity on the issue, according to congressional sources.

Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) summed up their reasoning by saying congressional debates "can be misunderstood when translated into headlines or sound bites in the media around the country and around the world."

They could be cited, Dole said, as "evidence of an erosion of support for the president's stance {that} would serve no one's interest, except Saddam Hussein's."

Dole also pointed out that the bipartisan resolution attempts to avoid a "plunge . . . into a pointless and damaging confrontation over war powers."

Nonetheless, longstanding tension between Congress and the White House surfaced over possible presidential initiation of military action without advance congressional consultation or approval. The issue was sharpened by the fact that Congress plans to adjourn this year on Oct. 19.

"This resolution does not -- I repeat that -- does not constitute authority for the president to initiate unprovoked military action against Iraq," Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told colleagues when the resolution was brought up last Friday.

"That is a separate question that would have to be addressed after consultation between the president and the Congress," Pell said.

Although debate was constrained, several members pressed their interpretations of the resolutions.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) stressed the connection the resolution makes between the president and U.N. action, while in the House, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) said he saw the House measure as the "best hope for a non-military solution" to the crisis.

Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), who said he opposed the House resolution in part because of the effects of concerns stretching back to Vietnam, said he accepted the necessity of U.S. air and naval presence but has doubts about deployment of ground forces in Saudi Arabia.

That "inevitably Americanizes such engagements and stretches American interests in these regional conflicts," he added.

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), one of the resolution's severest critics, denounced the measure, which does not have the effect of law and is not signed by the president. Hatfield said it "has no more force of law than a news release that may state our position or our opinion."

The three senators opposing the resolution were Hatfield, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran who lost a leg in combat.

Kennedy called the resolution's language "a blank check endorsement for future actions" which abdicates Congress's war-declaring power.

Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.